Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cell Phone Libel -- commentary

A few columns back I questioned whether standard American English could survive the texting craze of our youthful generation. I suggested parents not give their kids free access to this technology until they had first mastered correct use of the language. Another crucial question might be whether the family finances can survive the craze.

Recently I got in on the tail end of a news cast about libel suits becoming common place against those texting, twittering, or using other forms of social networking. Johnny may not be able to write standard American English, but he is a publisher every time he puts something on the internet. Experienced publishers are trained to avoid libel suits because they are expensive, time consuming, and can bankrupt the entity being sued. But, what about Johnny?

So, let’s talk about what constitutes libel. It is when you print something about somebody that is not true and it damages them in some way, usually in regard to their reputation. The only defense you have against libel is truth. If you can’t prove that what you published about somebody is true and they sue you for libel, you will probably lose the suit. So, your teenager, when sending out a text message or a twitter, is a publisher, and if they besmirch a classmate in some way, they are open to a libel suit. Since they are a minor, you get in on the action.

What about all the garbage the tabloids print about celebrities? Public figures fall under what is called the doctrine of fair comment and criticism. Because they are public figures, you can pretty much print what you want about them if you believe it is true and do not print it with malicious intent. However, your teenager’s classmates are probably not public figures; they are private individuals. Anything your child publishes about them must be true or it is libelous, and you are susceptible to a law suit.

I heard a lawyer friend say recently that the internet, especially the social net working sites, has become a gold mine for attorneys. In the same discussion, the manager of the local office of a national firm said she is now required by the home office to do an internet search on any applicant to see if there is anything that might embarrass the company in the future if she hires the applicant.

Be aware that we live in a litigious society, and it doesn’t take much to trigger a suit. I was once chairman of the Alaska Libertarian Party, and we often auctioned off small airplanes for fund raisers. A fellow won one of our airplanes. He had used it for about a year when it developed an expensive engine problem. It was a used airplane and we were not a commercial business.

However, he decided that since we hadn’t printed “no warranty implied or intended” on any of the information concerning the auction or the airplane, it was warranted and sued us for $10,000 to pay the repair bill. He named a half dozen of us in the suit. He knew it was a nuisance suit and that it would cost us more than $10,000 to take it to court. In that he had prepaid legal service through his membership in the Teamster Union, it cost him nothing to bring the suit. We paid him the $10,000 and the suit went away.

So, what happens if your child texts or twitters that Jane Doe is pregnant, a common piece of gossip around schools, and Jane’s parents find a hungry lawyer to sue you? You are now in a position where you must defend yourself, which means hiring a lawyer. Suddenly it is not so much fun being a publisher. The typical student excuses of “I didn’t mean it,” or “everyone was saying it,” won’t carry in court.

When you put words out for the public to see, you are taking on a grave responsibility. That is why news organizations are careful to say things like “the alleged killer.” Once the person is charged, they are an alleged killer. If the paper says “the killer” and that person named in the article is acquitted, the paper is now guilty of libel and open to a libel suit.

When your student passes on gossip about another student in print and the offended student files a suit, you had better be able to prove in a court of law that the gossip your child sent in a text message is true. If you are not concerned about the corruption excessive texting is doing to our language, you might at least want to be concerned about what it could do to your family finances.

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